“Honey bee keeping has nothing to do with nature conservation.”

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More and more companies keep bees – for a good image. But the popularity of beekeepers also has negative consequences.

The 250,000 new residents who have been living on Alexanderplatz for four years have hardly been noticed. Not only do they live in the middle of Berlin with a view of the cathedral, television tower and castle, they also work here day after day. The busiest and most dangerous place in Germany. But even if there are only a few pitiful trees on the Alex, the five honey bee colonies on the roof of the Berliner Sparkasse seem to feel really at home.

“The conditions can be better for bees in the city than in the country,” says Johanna Tränkelbach. The beekeeper looks after the honey bees at Alexanderplatz from the very beginning. Almost every week she climbs onto the roof of the bank. From here the pollinators swarm to the Tiergarten, Monbijoupark and Volkspark Friedrichshain. “The honey from the city hardly differs from that from the country,” says Tränkelbach.

What sounds unusual has long since found many imitators. The Senate estimates the honey bee population in the capital at around 11,000 bee colonies. More and more bees are also found on company roofs or brownfields. Vattenfall has beehives, the Deutsche Bahn and the fairground is also humming. “In the countryside, bee colonies are increasingly suffering from modern agriculture,” says Tränkelbach. Pesticides would threaten living creatures, but also monocultures. “When the large rape field has faded, the bees won’t find any flowers at all”.

Companies want to benefit from attention

The honey bee has been in the social spotlight for a few years now. Campaigns advertise for the protection of the yellow-black pollinators, ever more humans try themselves as hobby beekeepers. The fear around the honey bee causes emotions with humans. In Bavaria, the petition for a referendum “Save the bees”, which was actually campaigned for general species protection in the federal state, was able to collect 1.7 million signatures in February in record time. The Bavarian parliament passed the bill this week.

Bee lovers in other countries are also mobilizing. In the Dutch Utrecht the roofs of bus stations for honey bees were greened, other cities plant bee-friendly wild flowers on their green strips. With so much attention, it is not surprising that the bee has become interesting not only for animal and nature conservationists, but also for companies.

Dieter Schimanski is one of those who recognized the bee market early on. The 54-year-old from Bremen founded the start-up “Bee Rent” four years ago. The concept: Customers who are interested in honey bees are supplied nationwide and a beekeeper looks after the colonies all year round. In addition, the customers – 95 percent of whom are supposed to be companies – receive the honey. His father had already kept around 30 honey bee colonies. “Today, beekeepers have on average only two colonies,” says Schimanski. In China, on the other hand, there are beekeepers with 30000 colonies.

And that’s where the problem lies. As a German beekeeper one can earn only with difficulty money, if the litre honey is sold on the market for under two euro. “Less than one percent in Germany are professional beekeepers,” says Schimanski. But honeybees cannot survive without beekeepers because they are killed by a mite without regular treatment. Schimanski’s start-up company wants to get the bees professional beekeepers again.

Bees as a business model

The service costs Schimanski’s clients a lot: almost 200 Euros per month for one people at “Bee Rent”. A subscription runs for at least two years. “The bees are very care-intensive, our beekeepers must visit the colonies about 15 times in the year , say Schimanski. The customers are satisfied. Many would rent several colonies at the same time, almost all would extend the contracts.

His customers include banks, tax consultants, insurance companies, but also DM or Zeppelin. “My impression is that the companies want to distinguish themselves internally for their employees and at the same time are happy about the positive image effect to the outside world,” says Schimanski.

In the beginning, he did not himself believe in commercial success, the founder admits. But the hype about the threatened bee helped him. That’s why he doesn’t feel guilty. “If you have a broken water pipe, the plumber benefits.” Schimanski’s water pipe burst is the supposed death of bees. He now has three permanent employees, a dozen mini-jobbers and 23 franchises. The start-up company is growing by 50 to 100 percent annually, he says.

The Sparkass in Berlin also pays for the services of beekeeper Johanna Tränkelbach, but the bank does not want to hear about Greenwashing in this context. The 100 to 200 liters of honey that the bees produce annually distribute

The Berliner Sparkasse also pays for the services of beekeeper Johanna Tränkelbach, but the bank does not want to hear about Greenwashing in this context. The bank distributes the 100 to 200 litres of honey that the bees produce annually in small jars as a gift to visitors, guests and employees. “This is really well received,” says a spokesman. This is not a marketing act, but rather a small contribution to the environment. “We see ourselves as pioneers. Four years ago, nobody talked about bees.”

Are there too many bees in Berlin?

In fact, the honey bee population in Berlin has increased rapidly in recent years. If you calculate with 50000 bees per colony, the number of honey bees has tripled to about half a billion animals in the last ten years alone. This includes around 4500 migratory colonies that bring beekeepers to Berlin in summer. The spokeswoman of the German Beekeepers’ Association, Petra Friedrich, recently warned: “The bee density in Berlin is much too high”. Bee deaths? The honey bee is doing well.

Differently than its kind comrades. At the beginning of June, dead bumble bees lay under many lime trees in the city. The reason: They had starved to death because at this time of year only a few plants are still flowering. Not only the bumble bees concentrated on the lime trees, but also numerous other insects and the many bee colonies. For the bumblebee, which is also one of about 600 bee species, far too much competition for far too little nectar.

Christoph Saure has long warned against focusing too much on the honey bee. He has been working with insects for decades as an expert for environmental authorities in Berlin, Brandenburg and Saxony-Anhalt. “Honey bee keeping has absolutely nothing to do with nature conservation,” he says. Saure fears that beekeeping will cause the fragile ecosystem of insects to become unbalanced. “The competition is too great,” says Saure, who is particularly concerned about wild bees.

There are over 300 species in Berlin, three quarters of which are now on the red list. He sees the honey bee hype as being split between two parts. On the one hand the attention helps also other insects, on the other hand increases by many unsuspecting hobby beekeepers the danger of illnesses. He is also disturbed by the many companies that take advantage of the situation. Especially bee-friendly seed mixtures and insect hotels, which are becoming more and more popular, are of no interest to Saure: “What you can find at discount stores can be thrown directly into the trash can.

For beekeeper Johanna Tränkelbach, on the other hand, the positive aspects of the bee boom predominate. “The bee as a celebrity insect also has positive effects on other insects. She observes how her neighbours and customers are becoming more aware of nature. It is considered, which plants are set in the front garden and the bee-friendly seeds from the building market supports it. Tränkelbach is hardly bothered by the fact that the manufacturers also earn money with it. “Instead of accusing them of commerce, one should be pleased nevertheless that something in things nature conservation moves.

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Mette Frederiksen is a The Washington Newsday correspondent. With her coverage of general science, NASA and the interface between technology and society, Frederiksen has been in the Science Desk's Technology Beat since joining Washington Newsday in 2018.

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